by Tabitha Mead
In the past ten years, dog parks have taken off and grown exponentially in popularity in the US, including here in Louisville, Kentucky. What has been the cause of this? I think I may have a few safe guesses; dogs are increasingly being seen as part of the family, adults postponing parenthood and instead opting for pet ownership, more apartment dwellers becoming pet owners, and Millenials taking up a large percentage of the pet-owning population (35 % according to this article.)
Dog parks have the potential to be a great benefit for both you and your pup if you come prepared! Your dog gets physical as well as mental exercise while you have a built in opportunity to unplug and unwind outdoors. We’ve compiled a list of advice to help you get the most from your local dog park whether you’re a regular or a newbie.
If You’re New…
A dog park is not the ideal place to begin socializing your dog (puppy or adult). There is a lot to take in at dog parks and your pup can easily be overwhelmed. First, take them on walks to places they’ll encounter people and other dogs. Parks with walking paths are great for this.
Ask a dog owner if it’s okay for your dogs to meet if you feel comfortable. If they say no, don’t take it personally. Chances are their dog just isn’t great around others. Keep trying to meet other people and dogs!
“The more socialization becomes routine, the safer it becomes”
The more socialization becomes routine, the safer it becomes. Once you feel that your dog is comfortable with on-leash social outings, you can consider trying out the dog park. Take it slowly your first time! If you approach the park and see it’s full of other dogs, take a walk around the perimeter allowing them to take in some of the sights, smells, and sounds without going in. Try to come back during a non-peak time (early morning or later evening) to let them explore the park by themselves or with one to two other dogs.
“Don’t be afraid to talk to other owners when you enter the park”
Don’t be afraid to talk to other owners when you enter the park! It’s in everyone’s best interest to create the safest environment possible. So if you tell the other owners that your dog is new they’ll most likely be very understanding and help to keep the situation as calm as possible.
Do Not Leash Your Dog in the Park
Do not leave your dog on a leash in the dog park! I can’t stress this enough. All off-leash dogs, good. All on-leash dogs, good. A mix of leashed and off-leashed dogs is a recipe for disaster. Double gates at dog parks exist for you to take the leash off in a calm area and also to wait until excitement around the gate has died down. Utilize them!
Some people may think they should leave their dog on a leash at first if they’re new to the dog park so they have more control. This is not the route to take. The leashed dog can easily become fearful, anxious, and feel trapped if a dog approaches to play. They have no way to run away if they’re on a leash and this anxiety can easily lead to aggression.
- Leave the Food at Home
Even though treats are great for training a food-motivated dog at home, they can easily cause problems at the dog park. At best you’ll likely attract a crowd of dogs you have to fend off to give your pup the treat and at worst you could cause a fight with a food aggressive dog. There are other ways to distract and/or reward your pup that we’ll cover.
- Bring Water
Bring water for your dog if there’s no water source. This is important all year, but especially during the summer. If you frequent the park, consider donating a water bowl and bringing a couple of jugs that can be taken home to be refilled. A dog park I used to go to did this and people took the empty ones home and brought them back refilled without ever even talking about it!
Don’t come to the dog park if:
You have a young pup that is not finished with all his vaccines. As stated earlier, there are other ways to socialize and you should begin this as soon as possible. Around 16 weeks is generally a safe age to begin coming to dog parks. Most older dogs have more patience with pups learning social cues than with an adolescent dog, so start early…just not too early!
Your dog is in heat. There could likely be unneutered males present and the dog park is not the time or place. Need we say more?
Your dog is aggressive. Be safe rather than sorry. There are many different opinions and training methods on the topic, but dogs can overcome a history of aggressive behavior. However, do not reintroduce them to the dog park until they reach a point of consistent calm play. It’s also best to work through these issues with a trained professional.
Sitting on a park bench on a nice day watching your dog play should be relaxing. But, this isn’t the time to lose yourself scrolling through Instagram or for watching Netflix on your phone. You can relax, but make sure whatever you’re doing allows you to scan the area and keep your eyes and ears open. Activities like listening to a podcast or audiobook can work for the dog park because they allow you to multitask more than something where your head is buried in your phone.
Learn Dog Body Language
Familiarize yourself with common dog body language and with your own dog’s specific behavior. Some dogs don’t like certain breeds. Some are more submissive and others more dominant. Most aggression comes from fear and anxiety so we want to minimize that as much as possible.
If your dog is high energy, consider taking them on a walk before heading to the dog park. “A dog that has been inside or alone for hours has pent-up energy, and bringing her into an extremely stimulating environment such as a park with other dogs is like holding a match really close to a stick of dynamite and hoping the fuse doesn’t catch fire.” Chances are, the more tired out your dog is the calmer she will be.
“Your dog will tell you if he’s going to become aggressive”
Most of the time, your dog will tell you if he’s going to become aggressive or reactive. In addition to how your specific dog may tell you something’s about to happen here are some general signs you can look for:
- Pointed ears
- Closed mouth
- Snarling, showing teeth
- Standing still with muscles tensed, leaned forward
- Tail unmoving. straight up=offensive, tucked=defensive
Note that dogs can engage in play “fighting.” This is a perfectly normal activity. Some dogs may bow and even growl during play fighting, but their tails should be moving around and seem relaxed overall. If your dog is young, they may still be learning the social skills and approach the wrong dog to play.
(For more info on dog body language check out this article from the ASPCA.)
So what should you do if your dog is exhibiting one or more of these signs? Create a diversion! Get their attention and redirect them. If you have an adolescent or somewhat reactive dog, learn how you can redirect them to de-escalate the situation.
Try teaching them a special command you use at the dog park to get their attention. If this proves difficult, try distracting them with another form of play. My dog enjoys fetch and playing tug, so when I see her involved with a situation that could escalate, I grab a toy or stick and play with her on my own. She’s still having fun and I didn’t have to yell at her to get out of the situation. When you know common canine body language and specifically your dog’s body language, you can usually end a situation before it becomes bad.
What to do if a Fight Breaks Out:
Ideally, every pet owner would be educated and attentive, able to tell when they need to redirect their dog or even leave the park to avoid a bad situation. However, that’s not always the case and fights can even break out when everyone present is responsible.
“Fighting dogs should be grabbed by the back legs, like a wheelbarrow”
Fighting dogs should be grabbed by the back legs, like a wheelbarrow. This allows you to break it up (if the other dog is grabbed as well) without inserting yourself into it.
If the fight becomes serious and anyone is hurt (human or dog) exchange information. Fights happen fast and you could be so focussed on getting out that you forget to do this. Do your best to remain calm. You’ll want to check in with the other owner and make sure all shots are up to date and perhaps need to discuss responsibility and if payment is needed. Members-only parks typically have procedures in place for this kind of situation. In that case, contact management and inform them of the incident.
Dog parks aren’t for all dogs and that’s okay!
Some dogs don’t really enjoy dog parks. Some dogs who are well-mannered on their own may become reactive in high-sensory environments like dog parks. You may be the most responsible and well-meaning owner and still experience one of these situations and it’s okay. Despite our best efforts, we can’t force our will on our dogs. They all have different personalities.
“Dog-owners can often see their dogs behavior as a reflection of their own character.”
Dog-owners can often see their dogs behavior as a reflection of their own character. While there is some truth in this, our dogs are not robots who will do whatever we want if we just try hard enough. Accepting this can allow you and your dog to enjoy each other even more. It’s possible that you can be a great owner and also that your pooch doesn’t do well at dog parks. Irresponsible owners can sometimes have dogs that still do great at dog parks and responsible owners can have dogs that don’t do well. Enjoy your dog for who he is and both of you will be happier!
If you follow these tips you’ll be able to discern whether or not dog parks are a good activity for you and your dog. Whatever you decide, get off the couch and find some activities that are fun and mentally stimulating for both of you! You both need it and you won’t regret it!